by Ramón Flores
On 10 September 2015 the Steering Committee of the Decade of Roma Inclusion met in Sarajevo, Bosnia to close the 10-year period of the initiative’s implementation.
Led by the Open Society Foundations, from 2005-2015 initiative was implemented in 12 countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Spain. In each of these countries, the initiative’s local organisation implored its government to work to eliminate discrimination and unacceptable barriers between Roma and the rest of society by proposing its own Decade Action Plan. The commitment obtained by signatory countries was to “support the full involvement of national Roma communities to achieve the proposed objectives for the period and demonstrate progress by measuring the achievements obtained, and to review the experiences and the implementation of the Decade Action Plans”.
Today, 10 years on, that “Decade” has turned into a lost decade. This is especially true if we examine the role of the Spanish state during this period. Spain has spent these years claiming itself to be an “example of best practices in Roma integration”. The country has based this discourse on an ethnocentric gaché view where authorised paya voices claim that the four magical pillars of inclusion – education, housing, employment and health – would cure all the ills of Roma and their social maladjustment.
Perhaps the first mistake is to keep using the word integration, which connotes that the majority society will maintain its dominant position and integration will be carried out through juxtaposition until the dominated social groups (Roma) either become dominant or break away from their cultural characteristics and institutions because they are incompatible with their host society (non-Roma). The second option has been the prevailing one not only in this decade, but for five centuries.
During the years of the Decade, the Spanish state has played a passive role in terms of leading the action plans proposed by the Decade’s Steering Committee. This role has been one of delegating responsibilities to Roma and pro-Roma organisations in the country, a clear example of clientelism and handwashing.
This has led to even further distrust towards the so-called third sector, where NGOs have been seen as having an identifying and standard-bearing role for the Roma community. Governmental-type responsibilities have been shifted towards the associations, who it should be noted are not representative or authorised voices of the Roma community, but social actors with a clearly important role in civil society, but nothing beyond that.
This political game has led to a situation where the Decade of Roma Inclusion has gone completely unnoticed in Spain. The government has nonetheless displayed a remarkably swollen chest when talking about it as an example of best practices and endeavoured to “teach those new Eastern European members” how things are done with respect to Romani issues.
But even in this feigned role of superiority, Spain has once again failed, as usual. Not even during the Steering Committee meetings could the Spanish government be bothered to provide institutional representation on a more or less permanent basis, almost always citing scheduling incompatibility as the reason that prevented them from attending events and reporting and informing on the country’s progress with regards to inclusiveness. In fact, if you check out the official sources of the Ministry of Health, Social Services and Equality Minister of Spain, there is only one reference to the Decade – a link to the website of the Decade of Roma Inclusion. Moreover, the Spanish government itself has not written a single one of the reports published for the Decade. It has passed this responsibility along to pro-Roma associations and to the Spanish representatives from the Decade.
This power and leadership vacuum has created a situation of one-way clientelism. On the one hand, the national government has completely ignored the role they assumed in 2009 when they joined the Decade. Through a statement issued in 2014, they said they regretted the loss of its status as an “observer” after the conclusion of the Decade, and that they preferred to focus their efforts on the processes within the EU (so they could go and play with the grown-ups).
On the other hand, this surreal game played by the Spanish government has similarly triggered a prioritisation of “needs” that are necessary measures for both the Roma community and for the rest of the Spanish population. They have been and still are patches disguised as key areas for social inclusion. That is, the previously mentioned magical pillars that fix everything. (Education, Employment, Housing and Health, seasoned with quantitative targets, which are specified as population percentages, to be achieved in 2020).
Most pro-Roma associations and Roma in the country have found themselves trapped in this net. They have completely forgotten about their role as social actors and have converted and adapted the needs of the Roma community to priorities set by the European Commission, and hence by the Spanish government. If the Spanish government and Europe say that it is necessary to work in those areas, they will adapt the needs to political priorities rather than the other way round.
Because we should not forget that Spain is still peculiar when it comes to Romani issues. While Roma citizens are officially full citizens (fortunately, Spain’s Roma community is not recognised as a minority) in theory, the reality is quite different.
Under this premise, the Spanish government does not cover the needs of a population of nearly one million Roma Spanish people and also practices institutional and social discrimination against them.
Priority status is given to certain aspects which, even with “titanic” efforts by the country’s political institutions, are still seen as lacking. If we examine the data we can see that only 5% of Roma students finish high school, and barely 1% reach college. Not to mention classes for students with special needs…
And different Spanish governments have blamed the Roma community for their own social failures, pointing to Gypsy customs as the core of the problem. Of course, how could policies drafted at the Ministry of Education bear any of the responsibility?
Looking at employment, 22.2% of the Spanish population is unemployed. However, there are data (unofficial) that point to an unemployment rate amongst the Roma community of 57% (data from the Roma Decade).
These figures are frightening and certainly indicate that there is work to do. But Spain forgets (as do the NGOs) that the country’s Romani “problem” goes far beyond what is shown by data and statistics.
Negative and stereotypical attitudes about the Roma community continue to prevail, with this group being the most despised by the nation as a whole. Anti-Gypsyism continues to enjoy free reign in Spain – disguised as humour, investigative journalism and reality shows.
Well into the 21st century, perceptions are even worse – if that is at all possible – than when the Decade initiative began. A vacuum still exists where Roma voices should be properly heard. Nonetheless, the State continues with its patchwork approach to the situation. A clear example of this are government bodies such as the State Council of the Romani People and the Roma Cultural Institute.
Both cases would indeed be examples of best practices if the utility and purpose of these organisations more clearly reflected the needs and aspirations of Spain’s Roma community, and were not just showpieces to demonstrate that we care about the Roma issue.
And once again, the Spanish government saddles the responsibility on the organisations that comprise these bodies. This would be a good example of co-management and governance were it not for the fact that non-governmental organisations are urged by Europe and Madrid to continue to align their strategies and action plans based on what they consider to be most appropriate and politically correct, in line with stipulations issued by offices in Brussels.
One wonders whether the Spanish government has really wanted to effectively tackle the issue of Roma inclusion.
Why doesn’t Spain assume direct responsibility for the million Spanish citizens who are Roma instead of leaving the matter in the hands of NGOs? In the metaphorical sense, it is a way of neglecting the issue and transferring it to the citizenry with messages such as “Sponsor a child”.
If no direct action has been taken, it is because we are more interested in maintaining a state of inequality and therefore the status quo. It is not a question of measuring inequality and discrimination against the Roma community in quantitative terms, but of reflecting on the origins and processes that lead to such high levels of inequality.
Inequality and the poor living conditions endured by thousands of Roma in Spain are not circumstances that people choose. Inequality and poverty degrade the human condition, despite the proclamations of some extremist and sick voices (and perhaps other more moderate ones as well) claiming that Roma have no desire to integrate.
Spanish governments have apparently not understood or don’t want to know what this is all about. Instead, Spain prefers to play with the grown-ups in Europe, while at the same time benefiting from the gold mine which enriches the accounts of its social policies. In other words, Roma integration is an excellent opportunity to maintain the status quo of inequality, discrimination and social differentiation. And another excuse to continue blaming Gypsies for their non-integration, and NGOs for their lack of effectiveness.
Some time ago I read an article in El País entitled “In regards to Roma integration, we must have done something right”, which lauded the excellency of the programmes (patches) to promote unskilled employment. The article did not mention the high secondary school dropout rates and presented the ethnocentric view that payo researchers like so much: the us and them dichotomy; asserting that Gypsies form part of “our” society. That hackneyed and thoroughly assimilated ethnocentric vision…
Spain has once again missed an opportunity to make far-reaching reforms and drive the transition to an egalitarian society. At the end of the day, the “Decade” has been a mere ripple in the ocean.
Other initiatives will come through either private investment or public funds, and Spain will once again claim that it must have done something right regarding Roma integration and hang the best practices medal around its own neck.
This can only be avoided if there is an awakening amongst Roma civil society – whether via Roma intellectuals, students or graduates – who raise their voices and use their talents to work from a completely different perspective. This should enable real experts to research and generate views in order to properly advise governments and institutions on what to do and how to do it to achieve a more equal society and break the cycle of discrimination and anti-Gypsyism.
Will Spain listen to reason, or will it offer only superficial showiness and words of wisdom?
The Decade should be a lesson learnt about how to leave aside speeches as well as ethnocentric and recalcitrant positions where, in order to exalt Spanish achievements in the field of Roma integration, Spain continues to speak about flamenco. And Olé.